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Terra Nova is a bit too tame

October 3, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
I'm not sure if I'm going to bother to watch Terra Nova again tonight.

I did watch the entire two hour premiere of the expensive dinosaur show on FOX last week. It grabbed my attention during the first few moments with its action and family angst but lost it when the dinosaurs appeared and the teenage characters started acting too much like the teens from a CW teenybopper series.

It's worth finding the show on hulu.com or the FOX Web site and watching just the first 15 minutes of the pilot, if nothing else, because the world building rivals that of some of any action thriller or dystopian sci fi series you've ever seen.

Protagonist Jim Shannon walks through a dark, bleak city wearing a respirator. Apparently humans in this series have so polluted the earth that its citizens can no longer breathe outside air. Here, there should have been a plug for Al Gore's movie and a commercial with polar bears falling through melting ice, but there wasn't.

Inside the tiny apartment, Jim greets his family and excitedly shows them an orange, a fruit now so rare now that the kids look at it like the Holy Grail. Jim is just about to unpeel the orange for 3-year-old Zoe when teenage daughter Maddy arrives and says she saw the authorities outside and they're coming. This makes everyone panic. They grab little Zoe, shove her in an air vent and tell her to be quiet. Jim opens the door and a couple of men tell him they're from Population Control and have to search his apartment. Apparently families are allowed to have only two children and Zoe is an illegal third child who must be kept hidden.

A couple that has a third child when the world is THAT messed up and resources are that limited is kind of selfish, yes? Maybe the Shannons are Catholic and don't believe in birth control. It's too bad they didn't give them a better back story.

The officers order the family outside and Population Control, which bears a strong resemblance to the Nazi Gestapo, proceeds to rip up furniture, tear down walls and generally trash the place. The din terrifies Zoe, who starts wailing "Mama" from her hiding place. The jig is up and the lead officer opens the air vent and orders Zoe to come out of there now because they don't have all day. Jim goes nuts and attacks the officers. They taser him and he writhes in agony on the floor.

Fast forward two years and Jim is in a hellhole of a prison, breathing foul air and serving six years for assaulting the Population Control officers and/or his population control violation. Who knows why they let his wife Elisabeth off the hook, but she's still free. Elisabeth bribes a guard to give her five minutes to visit with her husband. Elisabeth is a well-respected doctor who has been recruited to emigrate to Terra Nova, a parallel primeval earth millions of years in the past, where she can make a fresh start with the kids in a place where they can breathe unpolluted air and frolic in the sunshine. The catch is that the government won't let her take the illegal third child, Zoe. Elisabeth can either emigrate with her first two children and leave Zoe behind, probably to rot in this society's version of a Dickensian orphanage, or she can give up on the idea and the whole family can keep living in the hell this world has become.

Elisabeth isn't interested in making a Sophie's choice here and she presents Jim with a third option. He can break out of a maximum security prison and smuggle Zoe through the portal when it's time for the family to emigrate. She smuggles him in a laser rifle and some handy instructions to help Jim make his big escape. Next we see Elisabeth and her two teenagers in a long line with other people waiting to pass through a Stargate like portal. They're wondering where Jim is and the sullen son say he's not coming and something probably went wrong. Meanwhile, Jim, now somehow free, is paying off a guard in a restricted area and switches a backpack full of money for another heavy backpack, which he straps to his shoulders.

Jim catches up to his surprised and happy family and they embrace. Jim then notices that security guards have noticed something suspicious and are about to arrest him. He hastily trades backpacks with Elisabeth and orders her to keep moving, no matter what happens. She orders her two kids to go on, but holds back, waiting for Jim, who is about to be detained. Finally, Elisabeth and the backpack disappear through the portal too. Jim shoves the guards and races for the portal, diving through it just in time as guards race to stop him, and is in paradise with his wife and children.

The trouble isn't over in the new world, though, where the new powers that be notice that the backpack is moving. They are about to stab it with knives when the family screams no and Jim rushes to open the backpack. Out pops Zoe, looking about as scared as a 5-year-old can look.

Unfortunately, everything gets wrapped up in neat little bow. Jim, a former cop, eventually gets hired on to the Terra Nova PD and Elisabeth starts work at the local hospital, tending to patients with odd diseases.

But then we spend the next hour and 15 minutes on the teenage son acting pouty and getting himself into trouble with dangerous dinosaurs and the local troublemakers; the teenage girl acting all angsty and the little girl pointing at clouds and feeding dinosaurs and being generally adorable. Jim is forced to sleep on the couch while Zoe shares the bed with her mother, but there's no hint of marital discord or of Jim being put out by any of this. Despite the dinosaur action it's very much a family show that doesn't delve into the more interesting aspects of its world.

Ratings were disappointing last week so only time will tell how long Terra Nova survives. The show airs Mondays at 7 p.m. on FOX.

 
 

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